The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Ethical Challenges Facing New Neuroscience Technologies

Today’s meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (the Bioethics Commission) discussed the bioethical issues related to current and new neuroscience-related technologies, as part of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative review requested of the Bioethics Commission by President Obama in April.

During the meeting, the Commission Members heard from John Wingfield, Ph.D., Assistant Director for the Directorate for Biological Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and William Casebeer, Ph.D. (U.S.A.F., Retired), Program Manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as they talked about the bioethical issues associated with the development of neuroscience technologies at their agencies.

Wingfield began by reminding the Commission members of the deep importance of basic biological research, research often addressed by the NSF, and noted that the NSF is in a unique position to assist the BRAIN Initiative, with the capability to “lead a multidisciplinary effort by scientists and engineers to advance the original research and tool development and educate the workforce needed for the BRAIN initiative to succeed.” He spoke of the NSF programs and the research they support, including research into genomic architecture, synaptic activity, imaging, and nanotechnologies, and brought up the example of the first FDA-approved retinal prosthesis, an implanted device that enables patients with retinitis pigmentosa to recognize letters and move about in space.

Wingfield highlighted potential ethical questions around neuroscience that the NSF is already beginning to consider: How do we manage or regulate rapidly evolving technologies? Do we need different principles to guide ethical policies relating to different uses of neurotechnology in the medical, intelligence, defensive, and personal realms? Should there be a distinction based on the intent of the use?  When and where should neuroethics education start?

He also raised the question of animal welfare and the protection of human subjects during the use and development of new neuroscience technologies.

Casebeer continued the discussion of neuroscience and related ethical issues by placing them in the context of the Department of Defense. He emphasized the importance of the BRAIN Initiative to DARPA, whose mission is “to prevent strategic surprise, and make it possible for our armed forced to create strategic surprise and prevent battles from happening.” Given that human beings are an integral part of warfare, DARPA has had an ongoing interest in developing neurotechnology, he said.

He described four important neuroscientific goals that DARPA is currently undertaking:

  1. Whether DARPA can use neuroscientific goals to “understand how we protect, repair, and restore the brains and minds of our fighters,”
  2. Where neuroscience technologies can “give fighters an advantage on the battlefield,”
  3. Whether neurotechnologies can be used to “develop better technology, teaching and learning tools to augment minds and brains,” and
  4. The possibility of being able to emulate some of the functions of the brain.

Casebeer notes that the brain “does amazing computations…[it] enables us to get around in the social world, reason morally and ethically, make judgments and decisions.” He said he hopes that technology might enable scientists to emulate some of these abilities.

Casebeer said that while many think we might be “out at sea in a sieve” when we think of the ethics of new neuroscience technologies, he believes that we can use standards from medical and military ethics to inform future bioethical discussion on neuroscience and related ethical issues. He emphasized a “three C’s” model of bioethics: character, consent, and consequence, in which character ensures the enhancement of human flourishing, consent is essential during development of technologies and during their eventual use, and that DARPA does all in their power to ensure that military technologies have positive consequences.

Together, Wingfield and Casebeer emphasized the bioethical issues related to neuroscientific advances at the basic and applied level, issues that will help guide the Bioethics Commission as they discuss neuroscience and its related ethical issues.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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